Let me start by saying that if you like steak on a plane, you’re probably going to be very disappointed by the end of this.
The more you know about how airplane food is prepared, or what makes it taste the way it does, the more you can’t “un-know”, which leaves me where I am on the subject.
I’ve seen “too much” of how the proverbial sausage is made, and I’ve tasted just about everything you can on a plane. At 40,000 feet, I’ve had delightful meals in the sky, some truly horrible meals, and also wasted $500 bottles of Champagne, though not exactly to fault of my own.
So now that the not so pleasantries of airline food are over, it’s time to dive into what to order on planes, and what you really might want to give a pass on. A lot of it has to do both with the science of cooking and facts around how your taste buds change in the air.
Did you know that despite many advancements in cabin air pressure and humidity, you lose as much as 30% of your taste sensitivity at altitude? It’s all true.
Your Tastebuds Are Different In The Air
Like sipping fine wine outside on top of a mountain with a breeze, there’s a limitation to your taste sensitivity in the air. Add in temperature and other aromas and it gets a little tricky to sniff out the finer elements in food, or drinks.
TL;DR: For the same reason airplanes are one of the safest indoor spaces in terms of air flow, they’re not the greatest place for drinking or dining. Air flows downward and is regularly refreshed, and most people have vents open, actively blowing air.
Couple that with added air pressure and dryer air environments than would be found on the ground, which enflame your glands and you’re left with about 70% of the taste you’d find on the ground.
This is a key reason much of the food you eat on planes is extraordinarily unhealthy. The decreased sensitivity means dishes are often seasoned more than usual with up to 30% more salt or sugar to counteract the environment.
The “Worst” Foods To Eat On Planes
For obvious reasons, hygiene is incredibly important in airline catering. You just can’t have anything which could risk giving a plane full of people food poisoning. I’m all for anything that keeps it that way.
But in practicality, this means you’re asking airlines to cook with their hands tied behind their backs. You can’t bring any raw meat on planes. That’s a fact.
Meat Based Dishes
What this means is, if you’re having a chicken, a steak, or whatever meat based meal you’d like to enjoy on board, it was cooked somewhere else, long before it made it on to the plane.
Leftovers can be lovely, but you have to think of eating meat on planes like eating leftovers. That’s pretty much what they are, in terms of cooking technique.
It’s a meal that was cooked and prepared many hours before, placed in a box for reheating, then into a cart, then into a truck, and then it sat somewhere fo a while, before being loaded onto your flight.
If You Can’t Resist A Meat Based Airline Meal
For 99.9999% of meals involving meat on a plane, your best bet is one with a sauce, such as a curry, a stew or in context of a pasta or noodles.
Dishes like this rely less on accurate cooking — like a medium rare steak — and also help keep the meat from drying out, thanks to the sauce and other features.
Heavy Creamy Dishes
Taste buds aside, your body is also going through things on a plane. There’s also limited… facilities. For those very basic reasons, gut bomb dishes just don’t really go that well on flights. Particularly, on long flights.
For what it’s worth, it’s probably worth thinking about this before you have all the buffalo ranch wings at the airport before the flight, too. Particularly if you wash it all down with a few beers.
Feeling bloated, fatigued and uncomfortable on a plane is fairly normal without a bad meal, so adding a cheese on cream on cheese on cream meal to the equation won’t generally help.
Fun Story: Airline Chef Tricks
I once spoke to an Etihad Airways cabin crew member and chef, who worked on the A380 during the height of Etihad’s luxury push. He would regularly receive requests for steak tartare, which is typically impossible on board a plane.
To get around this, he would have the catering facility hot sear the steak at the highest temperature possible, for the shortest time as possible to create a crust. But because it was such a short cook time, there was generally rare or raw filet inside, which allowed the chef to create a quasi-real steak tartare for guests in First, or The Residence.
Everything else must either be pasteurized, smoked, cured or any other way of making it “not raw” before it can come on board.
Not So Fun: A Game Of Cents
Before you prepare to regale me with stories of incredible airline meals, it’s important to remember that unlike restaurants where there are bigger “plays”, cost is everything with airline food.
You’d be shocked how much an airline spending 10 cents per meal could change a plate, but you’d be even more shocked to know that virtually all airlines choose not to. I’ve often wondered if there should be an optional “upgrade” button for meals.
In economy, expect that an airline is paying less well less than $5 per meal for a long haul flight. In business class, that number may double, but not by much. Meals can be well made at these prices, but the appetite to “spend more” is very low.
The Best Meals To Eat On Planes
I didn’t say this story would be fun, but it can still be tasty. With heavy dishes and meat based dishes out of the way, there’s still a lot of greatness that can come from noodles, rice and everything nice.
My personal favorite thing to eat on a plane? That’s a tough one, but typically a curry, a salad or a vegetable mezze style meal. If I’m really doing it right though, I pick up stellar sushi en route to the airport, or worst case grab some at the airport, and self cater.
Really, I just try to avoid anything heavy, that’s going to make flying at 33,000 feet any more uncomfortable than it can be. I try to think of eating before a flight like eating before exercise. Will this weigh me down and leave me feeling terrible?
Veggie Curries Or Stews Are Fantastic Airplane Meals
Vegetable curries, stews and pies are incredible on the plane for a few simple and logical reasons.
One, vegetables are generally good for you. Nutrients help with many things in life and they’re great for keeping your metabolism going with jet lag. Two, the decreased taste buds thing is true, but any good curry will still have big enough flavor to come through.
A great curry, whether over rice, noodles or just on its own is going to pack the big, bold flavors needed to stand out in the air, like fresh herbs and strong spices. Spices like turmeric and ginger can be fantastic for cutting down on inflammation, which is a constant worry on planes.
Mezze Style Meals Are A Delight
From hummus to tabbouleh, babaganoush and everything else, a great mezze can be the perfect way to fill up without feeling stuffed on a flight. These meals pack big flavor without the processing of other dishes, and often contain great nutritional content.
Breads for dipping or with olive oil give you enough sustenance to power through, without that full-full feeling of a hot and heavy meal. Whenever I find one of these offered, even if it’s not great, it’s good.
If there’s nothing traditionally mezze, I pretty much just aim for whatever sounds most like a Yotam Ottolenghi dish.
Salads of Pretty Much Any Kind
However long a flight may seem, it’s almost always better to eat on the ground before or after. If you’re going to eat on the plane, a quality salad is tough to beat for so many reasons.
Of course, it doesn’t help when an airline definition of salad is a singular cucumber, a lone tomato and a haggard piece of lettuce, but when they get it right, they’e a star.
It took about 70 years of commercial air travel, but some airlines are finally latching onto the idea that salads can be based on things like sweet potato, or mixed with cold pasta to create better sustenance. If it sounds remotely good, go for it.
Honestly, I Try To Self Cater Or Eat Beforehand
I spend more time on planes than most, and that means eating airline meals can be a part of life. My happiest flights however, rarely involve airline food.
I’m a huge fan of self catering and if international travel is involved, optimizing meal times to reduce jet lag. For example, if I’m flying New York to London, I’ll have a sushi feast in New York circa 2PM and then fast until morning in London. 2PM in New York is 7PM in London, when people would typically be eating dinner.
By adjusting my body slowly onto their meal times, I help accelerate my body clock onto destination time. It’s not always “fun”, but it can really help. Eating on planes can be a great way to pass time, but rarely is it going to be the most nutritional or delicious option. It just tastes different up there.
Boozing On Planes: Go Bold
You know it already – decreased taste buds and smell.
Tasting things in the air can be wildly different than experiences on the ground and that’s lead exceptional airlines to create pressurized tasting rooms to simulate what a guest will actually experience in the air.
Generally speaking, subtle more floral flavors of white wines or champagnes disappear entirely as a result. With reds, it’s much the same. A finessed and nuance pinot noir is just not going to have the impact in a pressurized tube that it does at your home table.
Smart airlines specifically seek out bolder styles of wine for flights, knowing that much like food, you’ll need real spice, oak or minerality to poke through and make an impact.
I won’t bore you on the fact that flying is incredibly dehydrating and over indulging on planes can lead to a special type of hangover. With that in mind, unless it’s something I’m willing to suffer for, I usually pass. First class occasionally creates experiences I’m willing to suffer for.
Go Ahead And Eat What You Like
For some people, having a steak on a plane is a status symbol. You won’t find filet mignon in economy, so some people can’t resist having a filet in the air, just to toast the moment. That’s cool, that’s fine.
Ultimately, people need comfort in the air, and comfort food is different for everyone. You’ve heard the inside scoop and tried and tested stuff, but if you need something carb heavy and cheesy to get through a flight, do what you gotta do. Just remember this article if it doesn’t go to plan!
Asian vegetarian or anything close to that is my default choice for any flight, whether economy or up to first. Now there’s scientific proof for why I’m doing this 😉
You’re ahead of your time. Best choice for sure.
Same here with Asian Vegetarian. Mezze also works on QR or wherever else it’s offered. Never, ever AA’s godawful highly processed turkey sandwiches.
Eat in the lounge, sleep in the air. That’s real F or J living.
I’m with ya!
On a TAM flight (first leg of the journey to SCL) from CDG to GRU in 2012 – it was economy, in the days before I could afford anything better – I had requested the vegetarian option in advance. I opened the lid to find white rice, a small piece of boiled broccoli and two slivers of equally boiled carrot. Dessert may have been some stewed (or boiled) apple.
I second Asian vegetarian w extra spice as the best choice. Indian is not bad either. Other options are smoked salmon, braised beef or lamb, shrimp and lobster based dishes are fine on QR. Best wines are oak rich Cali chards, Bordeaux or Malbec. Bold French cheese plate is great with Porto. I avoid carbonated drinks. Eating beforehand is probably the best option or skipping the meal all together is best on US and EU carriers unless Beluga caviar is on the offering.
The worst meal I ever ate. There were two was American Airlines first class going to Miami they serve the same meal when I flew back to New York and British Airways. Serve curry when the vegetables curry chicken never again.
Watch out for the lounge food. My girlfiend got a bug after eating lounge food. How long has the chicken been in the warmer. What about the serving spoon collecting bacteria.
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